Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s, V&A

The information available for the V&A’s latest exhibition, Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s instantly inspires thoughts of the 2003 film Party Monster. Those who have seen it will remember that this riddling film is the true story of Michael Alig, a deluded Club Kid party organiser who moved to New York and entered a dark yet glamorous world. The 1980s was an incredibly creative decade in which the fashion of the club was slowly but surely carried onto the catwalk in the major capitals of the world. The many sub-cultures that formed and which still exist today, in some form or another, were founded on the basis of the nightlife in clubs. Curated by Claire Wilcox, V&A’s Head of Fashion, the exhibition covers the sub-cultures and their distinctive fashions, as well as the interpretations of now renowned fashion designers on the fashions of the club scene.

Over 90 outfits by designers such as John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, Katherine Hamnett, Jasper Conran, Wendy Dagworthy, Paul Smith and Betty Jackson are curated together with accessories by designers including Stephen Jones and Patrick Cox. Split into two floors, the ground floor gallery features the work of young fashion designers who later became world-renowned for inspiring daring and electrifying guises while the mezzanine gallery concentrates on club wear and categorises outfits by sub-culture; Fetish, Goth, Rave, High Camp and New Romantic. It is here that clothes of the type worn by Boy George, Adam Ant, and Leigh Bowery dazzle visitors.

Doubtlessly, the Thatcherite economic and social rule of the time had had great influence on the formation of the sub-cultures that dictated club fashion; appearance is a way of rebellion. Billy’s, Blitz, and the Club for Heroes – some of the early clubs of London’s night life – had their own rules too. Steve Strange’s door policy at Blitz made sure that only “the weird and the wonderful” gained entry to the club. By making it almost a competition to get in at all, he didn’t only succeed in making the club financially successful but also contributed greatly to the social revolt that followed. This domino effect spread throughout the fashion industry creating not just brave fashion-lovers breaking taboos of what to wear and what not to, but also choosing how to live and how not to. It was how life became fashion and how fashion became life in the blink of an eye. One of the great examples of this at the exhibition is Bodymap’s form-fitting knits. Founded by Stevie Steward and David Holah in 1982, Bodymap collections shook the fashion world with their unique combinations of ideas; one of which was Cat in the Hat takes a Rumble with a Techno Fish, bringing together elements of Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, black and white graphics, lively colours and 1980s American “Brat Pack” actor’s films.

The 1980’s club scene was also about re-discovering oneself, not just stylistically but also psychologically and sexually. Perhaps, in relation to the latter, the greatest health scare of the time was AIDS as it had just emerged and people really knew very little about the implications of the disease. Jeffrey Hinton’s Club Soundtrack and Film, video footage from personal archive is “dedicated to all the shining stars we have lost to AIDS”. It features real footage of the drug and sexually infused club scene of the time and is quite a touching 13 minutes. Club to Catwalk also includes magazines of the time such as The Face, i-D and Blitz. As it always is, the role of such magazines in capturing and spreading the club and street look to mass audiences was crucial.

All in all, Club to Catwalk is a very detailed exhibition that really prods the 1980s both economically and socially. The exhibition offers a lot to see and absorb for the young club goers of our day as well as for those of us who can remember 1980’s fashion, whether fondly or not.

Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s, until February 16, 2014, V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL.

Hande Eagle

1. The Cloth, Summer Summit, 1985© Anita Corbin, courtesy of the V&A.
2. Bodymap, A/W 1984, Cat in the hat takes a rumble with a techno fish. Model: Scarlett Cannon, 1985 © 1985 Monica Curtin, courtesy of V&A.
3. Trojan and Mark at Taboo, 1986, 7 MB © Derek Ridgers, courtesy of the V&A.